Friday, March 4, 2011

March 3-4, 1865 - Amphibious Operations Begin...

St. Marks Lighthouse
The morning of March 3, 1865, dawned unexpectedly bright and sunny over Apalachee Bay. The fog that had obscured the Union flotilla from view for days had disappeared and the ships suddenly faced a very real possibility of discovery by Confederate troops onshore.

Hoping to keep his plans secret, General Newton quickly conferred with naval commanders and a decision was made to steam out across the horizon until after dark. The ships immediately turned about and moved out into the Gulf of Mexico, surprisingly without being seen by the Confederate pickets in the area.

Apalachee Bay
Once darkness had fallen, the flotilla started to make its way back to the mouth of the St. Marks River, but things quickly got very complicated. The weather turned stormy and as the ships were tossed and rolled by the waves in the bay, the pilot was unable to find his way across the bar at the mouth of the river. He was familiar with the channel and it seems likely that the wind was driving water out of the bay creating treacherous conditions for navigation. Hopes of landing the troops on the night of the 3rd were dashed and the ships dropped anchor to ride out the storm.

Despite the stormy weather, General Newton decided to make an attempt on the Confederate pickets stationed at the East River bridge on the road leading from the St. Marks Lighthouse inland to Newport. Acting Ensign John F. Whitman set out from the schooner O.H. Lee with a detachment of 10 or 12 sailors in a small boat and rowed for the mouth of the East River. He and his men soon found the river and rowed up to the bridge where they tried to capture the Confederate pickets.

The Southerners were from the 5th Florida Cavalry and, despite the storm and late hour, proved alert enough to avoid capture. They fled up the Newport Road while Whitman and his men took possession of the vital bridge. At the same time, Major Edmund Weeks of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry led 60 of his men ashore from a second boat party near the St. Marks Lighthouse. The early stages of the expedition were beginning to take shape.

The Confederates from East River fell back to Newport where they alerted Major William H. Milton of the 5th Florida Cavalry that Federal troops were on the mood. Milton, the son of Florida's Confederate governor, sent a courier to St. Marks with orders to commandeer a train and proceed immediately to Tallahassee to alert Generals Samuel Jones and William Miller of the incursion. He then took his available force, only around 40 men, and headed directly for the East River Bridge.

Marshes near St. Marks Lighthouse
The small party of sailors under Acting Ensign Whitman had taken up positions on the opposite side of the river to guard the bridge until Major Weeks and his men could reach the position from the St. Marks Lighthouse. Major Milton, meanwhile, came up on the north side of the stream. His men advanced cautiously through the swamp bordering the river and a sharp exchange of gunfire soon erupted.

Major Weeks and his men were approaching along the road through the marsh when the sounds of Major Milton's attack ripped through the predawn darkness on March 4, 1865, 146 years ago today. The 60 or so dismounted cavalrymen immediately spread out into a loose line of battle in the high grass and rushed up to reinforce Whitman's sailors near the bridge. Even though he was outnumbered, Milton pushed across the bridge and drove the Union force hard. Fearing they were outnumbered and seeing that no reinforcements were coming up to support them, Weeks and Whitman withdrew to the lighthouse, with the Confederates skirmishing with them as they went.

Both sides now clearly knew that more than a salt raid or similar minor incursion was underway. As daylight spread across the marshes, Major Milton could see the Union ships offshore. Additional information was sent to Tallahassee and soon telegraph wires were humming from the capital city calling in reinforcements from all across North Florida.  At the same time, the Federals began to push additional troops ashore at the lighthouse. The crisis was building.

I will post more tomorrow, but until then you can learn more in my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (also available as a Kindle download), and by visiting www.exploresouthernhistory.com.nbindex.

The annual reenactment of the Battle of Natural Bridge will take place on Sunday (March 6th) at Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park south of Tallahassee. The memorial service will take place at 1 p.m. followed by the reenactment.

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